"Now bring me back a sparrow," instructed Sunsplash, and Snowpaw whipped off into the forest, coming back a few moments later with a feathery sparrow in her mouth.
"Good job," congratulated her mentor, as she dropped the prey at the growing pile at Sunsplash's feet. "I think we have enough to take back to camp."
Snowpaw smiled, and, grasping a few pieces of fresh-kill in her mouth, she led the way back to the gorge where ThunderClan made their home.
"Hello, Snowpaw. Looks like you had some fun today," greeted Squirreltail, the deputy. He and Sunsplash were identical, right down to the golden flecks in their dark green eyes.
Snowpaw grinned again. As she padded away, dropping her fresh-kill on the pile, she heard the deputy remark to Tigertail, his mate and one of the seniormost warriors, "That apprentice is so cute."
"Like a fluffy little cloud," replied Tigertail, entwining her tail with his. Snowpaw bounced away towards her mother, who was chatting with Cindertail, Snowpaw's father.
"How much did my little warrior bring back today?" Ashfall purred.
"Probably more than even Flamecloud," joked Cindertail, referring to the best and most efficient hunter in ThunderClan.
"I caught four sparrows and four voles," chirped Snowpaw, and Sunsplash padded up behind her.
"And don't forget the two shrews," he said.
"Mrow!" An anguished wail came from behind the thorn barrier, and a dark gray tom bounded in, trailed by a black tom with lighter spots on his fur.
"My tail," cried the black tom. "My tail! Mother!"
Ashfall hurried towards the small cat. "Ooh, Darkpaw, what's wrong?"
"Tore it on the tip of a thorn," Smokefur said solemnly. "Sliced the fur right off of it and took a few layers of skin as well."
Darkpaw drew his tail towards his front for his mother to investigate, revealing a pale, bleeding, ragged tip.
"Let's get you to Whiteheart, come on," urged Ashfall. "Let's go, Darkpaw."
Snowpaw looked sadly after her brother, limping despite the perfect state of his legs. Cindertail stared after the apprentice, shaking his head.
"Darkpaw's afraid of everything," he mewed. Snowpaw laughed.
"Of course he is, Father, it's just his nature. He can't help it. It must have been the scare with the--"
"Don't say it," whispered Swiftpaw, emerging from the nursery. "Briarfur's just gotten Palekit and Moonkit to sleep, and they were having ideas about--" she lowered her voice, "--badgers invading the nursery, and foxes coming to eat them in their sleep. Doveflight must've gotten them riled."
"I'm sure he didn't mean any harm," Snowpaw offered.
Squeals came from the nursery, and Briarfur's exasperated voice filled the air. "Moonkit, Palekit, I told you--I mean, get to the back of the den, dears..."
Two cats came bouncing into the camp, batting joyfully at each other and screeching with glee. Owlpaw and Heatherpaw were play-fighting, and Swiftpaw soon leapt into the fray, and the three sisters burst into laughter.
Redstar appeared at the mouth of her den, looking quite alarmed, and the sole elder, Doveflight, was already padding slowly out of the den and attempting to haul himself to safety like he had been drilled to by Whiteheart.
Heatherpaw and Owlpaw broke apart, leaving Swiftpaw rolling around on the ground, looking quite mad. She hopped up after a moment, realizing she was the only one still fighting, and gave her chest fur an embarrassed lick.
"Heatherpaw, Owlpaw, protect the nursery. Snowpaw, Darkpaw, help Doveflight, Swiftpaw, protect Whiteheart and the herbs. Briarfur, keep your kits inside."
The three apprentices shuffled their feet, looking at their paws, while Snowpaw looked at them, smirking slightly. Darkpaw limped out from the medicine den, his ears flat and his tail between his legs like some Twoleg dog.
"Badger?" he questioned softly, then let out a wail. "We're all going to--"
"It was a joke," blurted Owlpaw. "It was Heatherpaw's idea--"
"But we were just playing," mewed Owlpaw. "There--there is no badger."
Redstar drew herself up to her full height, and looked down upon the three apprentices.
"You could've...you could've...to my den, all of you, now."
The three she-cats slunk up the side of the gorge and towards their leader's den.
Snowpaw was just turning away when she heard her name.
"You too, Snowpaw."
Snowpaw happily bounded out of the leaders' den. Swiftpaw, Heatherpaw, and Owlpaw were sitting sulkily next to the nursery, batting back and forth a small ball of moss between them. Redstar had ordered them to maintain a silent sort of vigil until sunrise the next morning, while Snowpaw had escaped unscathed. Redstar had just wanted to know about her apprentice ceremony.
Snowpaw settled herself down near Redstar's den, tucking her paws under her and surveying the camp. Names were running through her head.
Snowflower, Snowtail, Snowsplash, Snowheart, Snowfur...What name would Darkpaw be given? Darkface? Darkpelt? Darkheart? The latter would most certainly not work for Darkpaw, his heart was pure and whole...Snowpaw thought. She restrained from adding, Unlike mine.
As Snowpaw drifted off, Darkpaw was breathing heavily beside her, his snores almost shaking the whole den. Badgerpaw flicked him with his dark brown tail, and Darkpaw's head shot up in the darkness.
Once again, mewls started up from the nursery, and Darkpaw crouched in the den.
"Huh?" Badgerpaw asked, pretending to be only half-awake despite the fact that he had been wholly awake the moment before. "Someone say m'name?"
"N-No," stammered Darkpaw.
"Shut up," a voice hissed from the warriors' den. "It's moonhigh, and you're chattering like starlings!"
Darkpaw ducked his head, trying to pretend he was asleep. Heatherpaw and Swiftpaw blinked blearily, raising their heads. Heatherpaw opened her mouth to speak, but Swiftpaw batted at her ear. The black and white tabby shook her head violently. Heatherpaw's amber eyes widened in the darkness, and she shut her mouth and curled up.
Snowpaw was already fast asleep by the time Redstar had to come over and silence Darkpaw herself.
"Snowpaw..." The voices whispered. "Snowpaw...come....to us...."
In the darkness, Snowpaw turned, seeing a mass of dark-pelted cats surge toward her, their furry bodies swarming around her and covering her, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't see, she couldn't--
Snowpaw cocked her head. She was staring through the gloom at a pale ginger and white she-cat. She was sturdily built, with strong muscles and a scarred flank. Her amber eyes gleamed.
Snowpaw gave a small smirk. "Hello, Mapleshade."
"Feeling arrogant, are we?"
Snowpaw stared appraisingly at the Dark Forest cat. "Arrogant? Me?"
"ThunderClan cats always were arrogant and selfish, never--" sneered Mapleshade, but she didn't get to finish her sentence, for Snowpaw leapt on her, scoring her claws down her flank.
Mapleshade yowled in pain, fury, and humiliation. She tried to roll over and squash her puny apprentice, but she had grown stronger in the last three moons of her ThunderClan apprenticeship.
Snowpaw stood on top of Mapleshade, her paws on her stomach, her claws digging through her soft belly fur. Mapleshade snarled up at her.
"Well? What are you waiting for? Kill me, and get it over with!"
Snowpaw hopped off of her, apparently aghast. "Me? Kill you? Never! The whole point is that you're my StarClan mentor! I was joking, Mapleshade!"
Mapleshade got up, growled, brushed herself off, gave herself a few licks, and thought, hard. So her apprentice didn't know that she was from the Place of No Stars, despite her repeated visits...useful...maniuplatory.
"Come on," begged Snowpaw. "Take me to meet someone!"
"You want to meet someone? How does the virtual leader of the--StarClan sound?" Mapleshade quickly fixed her sentence. She hadn't meant to almost say the Dark Forest, it just slipped out...but Snowpaw looked happy.
"Is already here." A deep mew came out of the shadows, and out stepped a ragged silver tom with glinting green eyes.
"W-Who are you?" Snowpaw stuttered.
"I am the greatest fighter ever to have lived in the Clans. I possess more power and skill than you can imagine, I train only the greatest...ever. My name is Silverhawk."
"He is one of the most respected cats in the Pl--StarClan." Mapleshade cursed herself for forgetting, yet again.
Silverhawk smirked. "Indeed. Now, Snowpaw, show me your best attacks."
Snowpaw sat back on her haunches, and stared at both of the cats. Mapleshade was curling her lip at her, evidently expecting that she would attack her first, anything to get him back for...everything. Silverhawk, however, was idly examining his long, curved claws that glittered in the pale light. Snowpaw knew that if she attacked him, she wouldn't stand a chance. Silverhawk probably had seasons of training in the Dark Forest, and he could kill her for real in an instant.
Silverhawk gave a small snort of amusement. "Is this all you taught your apprentice, Mapleshade? Contemplation? I thought I'd give you a second try, eh? But you messed it up, just like the last one. She turned out good in the end as well, and look where that got her. Leader of her Clan."
Snowpaw looked confused, and Tigerstar laughed. "Don't know yet, do you, young Snowpaw? Mapleshade trained another she-cat, just like you, but she failed her assessment...all because of Mapleshade. Turned out she was going soft on her..."
With a yowl of anger, Mapleshade launched herself onto Silverhawk, and Snowpaw stumbled back as the two cats grappled. Mapleshade sank her claws into Silverhawk's shoulders, but Silverhawk's teeth were already the width of a mouse-tail from Mapleshade's throat. The younger warrior was able to shimmy away, looking somewhat ashamed.
StarClan cats fighting! thought Snowpaw. I bet no cat sees this every day.
"Now," Silverhawk said, hissing at Mapleshade. "Let's let this dumb halfClan warrior go off and train other apprentices...see if she can do better. You're now my charge, Snowpaw, unless I can find someone worthier of you."
"But I've been with her for ages--" protested Snowpaw. Silverhawk was on top of her in an instant, pinning her to the marshy ground.
"Are you refusing my offer of training you?" he growled into her face, his breath reeking of crow-food.
"N-No," stammered Snowpaw. "I just...I just...never mind."
"Good. Now, attack me."
Snowpaw flung herself at Silverhawk, clumsily. The fight began.
"Get up! We're going on dawn patrol," hissed a voice in Snowpaw's ear. She rolled over, almost hitting Sunsplash in the face.
"Dawn patrol," Sunsplash replied. "Come on. I'm getting Heatherpaw up."
"And remember," Redstar was saying as they left, "Heatherpaw, you still can't speak because the sun has yet to rise."
Heatherpaw nodded mutely. "Leaftail, make sure she stays quiet," Redstar ordered.
"Will do, Redstar," Leaftail replied. "Let's go, everybody."
"When will I have my assessment?" Snowpaw whispered to Sunsplash, as they headed out the thorn barrier.
"Hopefully soon. You've been in training for about three and a half seasons. You're lucky you'll be having your apprentice in leaf-bare, your pelt will blend in," replied the warrior.
"But I won't be able to find any prey," Snowpaw mumbled.
"Oh, I doubt that," Sunsplash said with a nod to Leaftail. "Keep going."
They reached the ShadowClan border, and Sunsplash and Heatherpaw set the markers. The patrol padded down towards the lake.
Snowpaw loved the lake, especially during leaf-fall. All of the leaves had fallen from the trees, but they were turning a pleasant auburn color, those leaves that hadn't fallen. One fluttered to the ground, right on top of her head, and Sunsplash gave a short laugh.
"It looks brilliant, with the sun shining off the dew," he joked. Snowpaw gave him a fake glare, and pounced on him.
"Hey, you two, this isn't the time for playing," Leaftail said. "I'm leading the patrol, and it's a dawn patrol, a border patrol, not a fighting patrol! You should be glad it's not a hunting patrol, otherwise you'd be scaring off all of the prey!"
"We know," Snowpaw said. "But, come on, Leaftail, it's warm, especially for leaf-fall, and we're right by the lake, and--"
"Oh, all right."
"Yay! You're the best!"
Heatherpaw and Snowpaw rocketed towards the water's edge, and took turns dabbing their paws into the water.
"Who says ThunderClan doesn't like to get their paws wet!" Heatherpaw cried joyfully. "It's actually kind of fun!"
"The sun's up," retorted Heatherpaw. Leaftail sighed.
"Yes, I suppose it is."
Heatherpaw grinned, and splashed Snowpaw with water. Snowpaw squealed.
After a few moments of play-fighting, Leaftail told them to hurry up. "Let's go check the WindClan border," she ordered. "It's nearly sunhigh."
"Yeah," snorted Snowpaw. "Right."
"Okay, come on. Enough is enough. Let's go, Snowpaw. We can't wait long." Leaftail waited impatiently as Snowpaw splashed Heatherpaw, before Snowpaw scampered after her own mentor and followed the patrol leader.
When they got back to camp, all was quiet. Redstar was conversing with her deputy, Squirreltail, and the warriors Blossomtail, and Blueclaw.
"All's quiet on the borders," reported Leaftail, shooting Snowpaw a glare. Snowpaw narrowed her eyes.
If there would be one misplaced claw in battle training...the senior warrior was such a blithering, condescending idiot and a lame excuse for a cat. She should be banished from the Clan for her treachery...that Snowpaw had yet to figure out, however...if Snowpaw could kill Leaftail, she vowed, she would.
Snowpaw felt her paw collide with something large and furry, and she woke with a jolt, her eyes swimming from the scenes of blood and gore she had just witnessed. Darkpaw flinched next to her, but continued to snore.
Snowpaw peered around in the gloom. She could make out the pelt of the night guard, who was slowly slumping down, before jerking back up to keep itself from snoring. In the darkness, Snowpaw couldn't tell which cat it was by sight, but she could scent someone she loathed...
This is your chance!
Snowpaw looked around. Who had spoken?
Get her, Snowpaw. Don't hesitate.
"Who's there?" whispered Snowpaw, and she saw Leaftail stiffen at the tunnel.
It's me, Snowpaw. Don't hesitate now...it's just you and her...she doesn't know you're coming, she can't smell you...this is your chance, Snowpaw...to get rid of her...to defeat her for good...to make her suffer for your pain...
My pain? thought Snowpaw blankly, but the voice, who she had realized was in her head, continued to speak.
Just do it, Snowpaw, it purred. She'll never suspect you...just a quick slice of the claws...no time for her to scream...you'll never be suspected if you do it properly.
Snowpaw stared calmly at Leaftail. Would she do it? Could she?
Yes, she could.
"Heatherfur! Owlpelt! Swiftfoot! Badgerstripe!"
Heatherfur bowed her head as her name was called, her eyes wet, though shining. At her paws, lay her former mentor. Badgerstripe was staring sadly at the she-cat, as though she was his own mother.
"We'll miss her," Redstar mewed solemnly, as Doveflight trekked forward to carry Leaftail to her grave.
"How horrible," whispered Briarfur, sweeping her kits around her. The two small kits were shivering slightly, staring at the tortoiseshell tail dragging in the dust as it was pulled away.
"At least Heatherfur's a warrior now," muttered Smokefur. "So she doesn't need Leaftail."
"Smokefur!" Redstar scolded. "The loss of any warrior affects the Clan greatly. Not just the apprentice she was training. We'll be keeping vigil tonight."
Snowpaw padded away, beckoning to her brother.
"Shouldn't we ask...?"
"They won't miss us," Snowpaw said softly. "Come on, Darkpaw. Please? We're just going hunting..."
"They'll be pleased to have more fresh-kill," Snowpaw added. Darkpaw shot the mourning cats a fearful look, before turning back to his sister.
"Oh, all right. But only because you asked, and because we're almost warriors." His voice became somewhat slurry and confused, as he said, "We should...we should...we should show them that we're capable!" Darkpaw couldn't believe he had actually said that.
"Great! Let's go."
The two slunk out of their camp, their paws cushioned by the soft forest floor, their voices muffled by the wind that whipped above their heads.
"Toward the ShadowClan border," called Snowpaw, and Darkpaw followed her. Together, in the green and brown of leaf-fall, their pelts were highly contrasting to any cat whom might be searching for ambush.
A rustle of leaves. Darkpaw whirled around, looking for the attackers. His amber eyes were wide with fear, and ever hair on his pelt was quivering. His long tail was fluffed up, his ears perked for any sign of danger. He looked to both sides, then turned again. No sign of Snowpaw.
Darkpaw began to panic. He scuffled the leaves with his paws, disrupting a blackbird. "Snowpaw!"
"Up here, you idiot. Be quiet!"
Darkpaw looked up, and saw his sister, her pelt like a beacon, in the Sky Oak above him. "Get up here!" Snowpaw hissed, her blue eyes glittering angrily. She cast a look to the ShadowClan border. "Now!"
Darkpaw attempted to scramble up the tree. His claws slid down the trunk, leaving long scores in the bark. Snowpaw leaped down a few branches, grabbed his scruff, and hauled him up.
"Silent!" snarled Snowpaw. Darkpaw cowered against the trunk, digging his claws in to the bark until the soft fur between them was almost stuck into the holes his claws had carved.
"Come on," whispered a voice.
"Where?" Darkpaw replied, trying his best to keep silent.
"I said, be silent!"
"Shut. Up." Darkpaw squeezed his eyes shut and dug his claws, if possible, even farther into the bark, thinking in his head, I hate trees. I hate Snowpaw. I hate trees. I hate trees. I hate Snowpaw. I hate trees.
"This way," another voice said softly.
"Come on," added the first.
"Just right over--ergh, they smell disgusting."
All cats fell silent, and Snowpaw strained her eyes. She could just make out the pelts of three warriors and one apprentice.
"I don't--" a small voice said shrilly, but it was interrupted.
"You might not be excited," hissed another voice. "But I am. I can't wait to get my claws under the pelts of those mangy ThunderClan warriors, and put right all of the wrongs ThunderClan have done."
"But she's a warrior," protested Birdpaw.
Silently, Snowpaw slipped down from the tree. She crept up behind a tortoiseshell tom, Birdpaw, and fluffed out her fur to frighten the enemy. She was downwind of ShadowClan, which was good, and even though they had just crossed the border, the whole place was reeking of their Clan.
In a moment, Snowpaw had pinned Birdpaw down, slapped her tail over his mouth, and her claws were stretched out and at his throat.
"Don't. Make. A sound," she mouthed, but instead of fright, the apprentice's eyes were filled with fury. He began to struggle, yowling around Snowpaw's fluffy tail.
"FunnerClan pafol," he spat, but Snowpaw dug her claws in deeper, and Birdpaw stopped. His Clanmates were closer to the camp now, and moving away. They hadn't noticed the absence of their most annoying apprentice.
"Go back to your Clan," Snowpaw snarled. "Or else you will get hurt."
A chorus of yowls came from ahead. "Where's Birdpaw?" thundered a voice, loud enough to alert the whole Clan.
"Shut up, Skunkheart!"
"Darkpaw!" ordered Snowpaw. "Go alert the Clan that these traitorous bits of crow-food are coming to invade our camp. I'll be able to deal with....this one."
"Y-Yes," stammered Darkpaw, and raced off, jumping from branch to branch like a squirrel.
"Go. Home!" Snowpaw hissed.
"W-Who are you?" Birdpaw asked quietly as Snowpaw removed her tail from his mouth, and shook it out.
"Who do you think?"
"StarClan, they told me ShadowClan were dumb, but when they said that, I didn't think--" Her sentence ended in a yowl of pain and anger, as Birdpaw had rolled her over and was now almost sitting on top of her.
"Get off, you piece of fox-dung!" spat Snowpaw. Birdpaw looked satisfied.
"Redstar," he snorted. "Wow. You really fell for that one, didn't you? 'StarClan, they told me ThunderClan were arrogant, but when they said that, I didn't think they were this arrogant!'" He smirked.
"Get. Off. Me. Now." Snowpaw's voice was dripping with venom, and her eyes narrowed.
With a burst of strength, she flung Birdpaw off of her, bit him hard on the hindleg, raked her claws down his flank and his tail, and then raced off towards the camp, where yowls were erupting.
This is what power feels like.
"What are their names?"
"Yewkit for the golden she-cat, Dawnkit for the tortoiseshell, Rabbitkit for the cream tom, and Icekit for the silver tom with the darker spots."
"They're beautiful," Snowpaw replied earnestly, smiling slightly.
"Thank you, Snowpaw. I hear that Redstar's going to make you a warrior today."
"Really? Wow, where'd you find that out?"
Small talk filled the camp as cats milled about. Stormpetal had recently given birth to Stoneheart's four kits, Yewkit, Dawnkit, Rabbitkit, and Icekit, and Briarfur's kits were almost ready to move out of the nursery.
Sunsplash ducked into the nursery. "Snowpaw. I'd like to talk to you."
"Good luck," Stormpetal called after the apprentice.
Snowpaw turned around. "Thanks, Stormpetal. I'll play with your kits when I'm a warrior!"
Stormpetal laughed, and Sunsplash rounded on Snowpaw. "So, how are you so sure you're going to be a warrior today, Snowpaw?" His eyes twinkled, which gave Snowpaw the hint that she and Stormpetal were right.
"Stormpetal," replied Snowpaw happily.
"Honestly, since she became Squirreltail's mate she's been hearing all of the Clan gossip and the imminent news!" Sunsplash mewed, shaking his head. "My own sister doesn't even tell me these things!"
Snowpaw frowned slightly, and she caught a glint of her reflection in her mentor's eyes. An unhappy-looking white she-cat stared back at her, with furrowed eyebrows and dark blue eyes deep in thought, her mouth curled down into a scowl. Snowpaw shook herself, fluffing out her fur, and turned back to Sunsplash.
"Redstar's your sister? I didn't know that," Snowpaw remarked.
Sunsplash nodded. "Yup. Well, half-sister, and older...littermate. Our mothers were the same, but her father was a different cat than my own. Berryfeather was our mother's name..." He trailed off into reminiscence.
"Do you think Redstar might let me mentor one of Stormpetal's kits?"
Avoiding answering, Sunsplash replied, "On the subject of mentoring, well, you were right. You are going to be a warrior today."
"Really? Great! Do you know what my name's going to be?"
"If I knew, do you really think I would tell you?"
I just hope it's not Snowfur.
"StarClan honors your courage, forethought, and purity of heart."
Purity of heart, sneered a voice in her ear. Purity of heart, if only she knew.
"Snowheart! Darktail! Snowheart! Darktail!"
Snowheart stared at her paws, her eyes blooming with pride and happiness.
Don't get sappy. We still have a training session tonight. You're not a warrior in StarClan yet.
Snowheart disregarded Silverhawk's voice, and padded towards the warriors' den. Heatherfur was bouncing around her. "We'll make you a nest, and, well, you'll have to sleep close to the outside, but you can always sleep near me! I'm near the back of the den, which is actually a lot warmer than the middle, but the senior warriors get the middle, so I'm not complaining," she babbled.
"'Course, Heatherfur," replied Snowheart easily. "You know, I think I might go to sleep now...I'm rather tired, and..." She gave a wide, fake yawn, and padded into the warriors' den.
"Okay! You can sleep in my nest, I'll build you a new one, and you can use it tomorrow. Owlpelt won't mind if I sleep in her nest tonight, she's on guard."
Owlpelt groaned. "I am?"
"Hey, Owlpelt!" yowled Squirreltail, and Owlpelt trudged out of the den, grumbling.
Heatherfur beamed, and Snowheart settled down in her new denmate's nest, and slowly, her eyes drooped closed, and she sank into sleep.
"Get up," snarled a voice in her ear, and Snowheart rolled over to see glimmering eyes peering into her own. She hopped up.
"Good job with Leaftail," remarked Silverhawk, standing back.
"Thanks. I was sort of afraid they'd find out," admitted the warrior.
"Never be afraid," hissed Silverhawk. "Ever."
Snowheart hastily stepped back. "Attack me," ordered Silverhawk.
Snowheart leaped at the massive cat, but quickly slipped out from under him as he rolled over in his predictable first move.
Snowheart scored her claws down the side of Silverhawk's face, squeaking at the trail of blood she left. Silverhawk glared at her, and pounced.
"Never show signs of weakness," he growled in her ear.
With a surge of strength, Snowheart kicked the Dark Forest warrior off of her, and scratched his flank, before biting down hard on his tail. He yowled in anger and pain.
Suddenly, the pale fur in front of her began to fade, to turn milky-white, and then disappear altogether. Snowheart stood in confusion, until a familiar, rank scent hit her, and she turned to see Mapleshade stalking up to her.
"Good job, Snowheart," she sneered. "Made Tigerstar fade away, you did."
"Time for the Gathering!"
Snowheart jerked awake, scrambled around for a moment, and then realized where she was: back in her nest, not fighting in the Dark Forest. It was time for the Gathering, a time of peace. Fighting did not equal peace.
"Come on, Snowheart!" Darktail mewed impatiently. "You're going to be left behind!" Tigertail was ushering Swiftfoot and Blossomtail out of the warriors' den, while Redstar led the cats following her out of camp.
"You're going to make us late," growled Darktail.
"We won't be late," Snowheart replied. As soon as they got out of camp, Snowheart bunched her muscles beneath her and sped after her disappearing Clan. Darktail struggled to keep up.
"What, did Smokefur never train you?" Snowheart teased, glancing over her shoulder. She was at the back of the group now, while Darktail was wheezing, stumbling clumsily as he attempted to catch up.
The cats around Snowheart slowed, until the white warrior found herself at the head of the group, next to Redstar and Squirreltail. "Why'd we stop?" breathed Snowheart.
"There's only RiverClan down there. And they smell angry," Squirreltail said, his voice absent and his eyes staring blankly into the clearing. "Very angry."
"Well, there's a truce," Snowheart pointed out. Squirreltail turned to her, his eyes shimmering with annoyance.
"That doesn't mean they'll all follow it," snapped the deputy when Redstar signalled for the Clan to enter the Gathering site.
Darktail stayed by his sister's side all the while, as they wove between cats.
A silver and white tom was snapping at his Clanmates beneath Cedarstar. It was Lakeclaw, the RiverClan deputy.
When WindClan and ShadowClan finally arrived, RiverClan's anger was revealed. "Prey-stealers!" snarled Cedarstar towards the WindClan cats.
Sparrowstar flattened her ears. "What prey of yours would we steal?" she hissed.
Cedarstar's reply was cut off my Redstar. "By StarClan, look at the moon!" Heavy storm clouds were floating over it.
"But--" Dawnfur interrupted.
"No," replied Sparrowstar evenly, forcing her fur to lie flat. "Redstar is right. StarClan must detest this arguement. They would have otherwise sent light clouds to cover the moon, not heavy, gray storm clouds. This is wrong."
Cedarstar looked ready to explode, but he took a deep breath and sat back down.
"ThunderClan has nothing to report," Redstar informed the other Clans. Silverstar stepped up, noted that the prey was running well, and the Clans broke up.
When they all left, the moon was shining, clear and white as ever.
Snowheart woke up, scrabbling in her nest. "What--"
A loud noise had woken her, a noise that was getting louder and louder with each coming moment. Peering out of the den, Snowheart saw a flash of golden-brown, and noticed Squirreltail dart into the clearing, followed quickly by Redstar, whose dark red pelt was lank, damp, and unkempt in the moonlight.
Pelts flicked out of the den beside Snowheart. She counted and recognized the warriors flooding into the center of the camp as the noise grew louder. Smokefur, Blossomtail, Cindertail, Swiftfoot, Ashfall, Tigertail, Flamecloud, Blueclaw...
Soon, the whole Clan was in the center of the camp, looking around, flattening their ears, growling at the unseen predator.
Darktail skidded into the camp.
"Where have you been?" Snowheart hissed. Darktail said nothing, but his yellow-amber eyes were bugging, his tail bushing out, and his ears flat.
"I have seen....the end.....!" he yowled fearfully, uncertainly, his eyes wide. "No...no cat was spared, not even the kits! It comes on the paws of a young white...cat..."
Snowheart glanced around. There were only four pure white cats in the Clan. Whiteheart, Cloudflower, Moonkit, and herself. Surely one of them wasn't going to cause the "end"?
Darktail was shivering. Whiteheart hurried over to him and began to comfort him.
"We're going to have to evacuate the camp," Redstar mewed loudly. "Squirreltail, organize them into groups, we can send them to Sunningrocks!"
Squirreltail nodded, beckoned with his tail for Doveflight, Blueclaw, Cloudflower, Sunsplash, Stormpetal and her kits, and Briarfur and hers to follow him.
After a few moments in which the rumbling increased, Redstar called out, "Adderclaw, lead Tigertail, Flamecloud, Blossomtail, Ashfall, Cindertail, Stoneheart, Swiftfoot, Snowheart and Darktail! The rest of you, follow me! Now, move, move, move!"
Snowheart trotted beside her Clanmates, until they caught up to Squirreltail's group. Moonkit, Palekit, Briarfur, and Stormpetal and Icekit, Yewkit, Dawnkit, and Rabbitkit were all falling behind.
All of a sudden, with an almighty roar, a huge monster broke into the trees. Moonkit and Palekit stumbled forward, out of the path of the monster, and were instantly scooped up by Blueclaw and Cloudflower. Briarfur hurried back to help Stormpetal. However, Icekit and Rabbitkit were forced to hurry after their mother, as no one could cary them.
"Snowheart!" cried Stormpetal. "Help me!"
Snowheart gave the queen a long, cold look.
Stormpetal shoved her kits forward, and they hurried a short length, out of the past of the oncoming monster.
It was fox-lengths away from Stormpetal. Snowheart and the rest of the patrol were already far ahead. Stormpetal was the only cat left.
Snowheart turned, and raced to catch up.
"Stoneheart, I'm sorry. Stormpetal...Stormpetal got crushed by the monster."
Stoneheart's eyes widened in disbelief, and then he pushed past her. "I have to find her!"
"You won't! Her body got picked up by the monster, I'm sorry."
Stoneheart's face was a mask of fury. "Why didn't you save her?" he whispered weakly after a moment. "Why didn't you help her with the kits? Are they all right?"
"Your kits are all right. I'm sorry, Stoneheart, there was nothing I could do."
You're not sorry. Never be sorry.
"Rabbitkit! Dawnkit! Icekit! Yewkit, come here!"
The four kits trotted up, looking around with wide eyes. "Where's Stormpetal?" mewed Rabbitkit. "Is she playing?"
"No, silly, she's probably asleep!" Dawnkit replied. "Let's find her!"
The four kits stopped, frightened, at their father's roar. "You can't go looking for her, kits. She's not out there. She's not anywhere in or near the forest now. She's...up there." He gestured with a long, gray tail towards the stars disappearing in the milky dawn.
"In StarClan?" squeaked Icekit. "She must be important!"
"She is," replied Stoneheart. "But we can't see her anymore."
"Why did StarClan take her?" Dawnkit asked.
"She's not....she's not...dead, is she?" whispered Yewkit. Her father smoothed down her golden-brown fur, and nodded slowly. All four kits let out a wail.
"Why did Stormpetal have to go?" cried Dawnkit. "Now we have no one to feed us!"
"Briarfur will," Swiftfoot meowed, coming over. "I'm sorry, Stoneheart."
"Why are you all sorry? Saying sorry won't bring back Stormpetal!" Stoneheart leaped away from his kits and bounded into the woods.
Snowheart watched it all, from her perch on the highest rock on Sunningrocks, and sighed. "Redstar!" she called. "Redstar!"
Squirreltail and Whiteheart bounded up to her. "She's still out," Squirreltail said worriedly. "But what do you need to tell her?"
Snowheart quickly explained about the deaht of Stormpetal, saying there was nothing she could do and that Stormpetal's body was then taken by the monster. Snowheart tried to get her back, but she couldn't penetrate the monster's thick shell. She had given it scars to remember her by, however.
You're a fantastic liar, Mapleshade's voice snarled in her ear.
Squirreltail nodded, thanking her, and Snowheart bloomed with pride.
Not at Squirreltail's praise, though, but at Mapleshade's.
"She still has many lives left," Squirreltail informed Heatherfur, whose amber eyes were clouded with grief.
"I've never seen her lose on," murmured the warrior. "She looks so helpless. We can't make her more comfortable?"
Whiteheart shook her head. "One of her lives is joining StarClan, but she should be--ah, she's back."
"Where am I?"
"Mother!" cried Swiftfoot, hurrying over. "Mother, you're all right!"
Heatherfur and Owlpelt pressed close to each other. "I thought that was your last life," gulped Owlpelt. Redstar gave a croaky laugh, but shook her head.
"Do I look old to you?"
Heatherfur gave a small smile. "No."
"Redstar?" Snowheart asked. "Stormpetal's dead."
"I know," whispered Redstar. "I saw her."
"In StarClan?" breathed Swiftfoot, her eyes wide. "You saw her?"
Redstar nodded, and was helped up by Whiteheart. Redstar was able to hobble towards the rocks, toward a sunnier spot, where Whiteheart set up a make-shift medicine rock, with small clumps of herbs and a few leaves, as well as cobwebs, stacked around in piles.
Ashfall and Cindertail pad towards Snowheart. "Is it true?" murmured Ashfall. "Is Stormpetal really...dead?"
Snowheart nodded, and Ashfall let out a small noise of grief. Cindertail looked numb with disbelief. "Stoneheart was my littermate," he muttered. "Stormpetal...Stoneheart..."
"Up you get, Stoneheart. Come on, let's take you to Whiteheart," Briarfur said to the gray tom. Cindertail hurried over to the two cats, nuzzling Stoneheart and Briarfur, his littermates.
"Come on," he mewed to Stoneheart, and the three padded away towards Whiteheart's area. Darktail was already sitting there, shivering, still shooting frightened glances around, his amber-yellow eyes still huge and round.
Snowheart hurried away from the huge outcropping of rocks, not even turning around when she heard her name being called....once, twice, three times....
Snowheart sat on the bank of the river, far away from Sunningrocks, far away from the pleas of her Clanmates.
A gray tom and a few others padded towards her, along the RiverClan side of the bank. Spotting Snowheart, a dark gray she-cat hurried over, with a glossy black cat and a gray tom on her heels. A white and black she-cat hung farther back.
The dark gray she-cat nodded. "How's it in ThunderClan?"
"Terrible," replied Snowheart.
"I can't tell!" Snowheart said defensively. "That'd be giving away my Clan's secrets!"
"S'pose you're right there," mewed the gray tom.
The white and black she-cat grunted, moving closer. The glossy cat stepped aside to make room for her.
"How's it on your side of the river?" Snowheart asked.
Vixenflower sighed, and shrugged. "Good enough. Shimmerfeather has been made into a warrior."
The glossy black she-cat smiled, and gave Snowheart a nod.
"Good job," Snowheart mewed stiffly. She turned back to Vixenflower. "Is prey all right?"
Vixenflower had gone silent, and she flicked her Clanmates back with her tail. She was staring at the water, tilting her body slightly to decrease her shadow. Quick as a flash, her paw darted out and scooped up a tiny silver fish.
"That answer your question?" Vixenflower mewed after slamming the fish against a rock.
"Want some?" Shimmerfeather asked, flicking a paw out. She tossed a small fish across the river, and Snowheart leaped back.
"You must be confident about your prey supply," mewed the white and black she-cat, smirking.
"We're not--I mean--"
"Then eat the fish," the she-cat said aggresively. "We caught it, I don't know why it matters to you."
Muttering darkly, Snowheart bit into the fish. It tasted very salty, and was limp and damp. Not wanting to be rude, Snowheart wolfed down the fish, trying not to taste it.
"You must not have a lot of prey," surveyed the she-cat.
"Be quiet, Pikefur," Vixenflower said. "I'm leader of this patrol."
"I wasn't defying your leadership," Pikefur replied, faking astonishment. "Merely commenting on ThunderClan's apprarent lack of prey."
Snowheart decided she didn't like this cat, and was about to leap across the river and claw her fur off, when the gray tom leaned across the river and whispered, "Don't mind her. She's just prickly because she hasn't caught any prey."
Snowheart nodded slowly, and stepped back. "Thank you. I--must be getting back to my Clan."
The young warrior hurried away, knowing that she couldn't go back to her Clan, not yet. Something was wrong, and she had left them, recklessly, and she knew she had to do something to fix it, or at least make it appear that she hadn't known.
Snowheart padded off into the forest, back to where the monster was. The roaring had stopped, she noticed, so the forest would be safe.
Stormpetal! She had told Stoneheart the body was gone, but what if it wasn't? Should she bring it back, try and convince them that she just saw what happened out of the corner of her eye?
When Snowheart reached the spot where the monster had passed by, deep trenches dug into the ground in its wake, she spotted no body. Stormpetal really was gone.
So she hadn't lied.
It came as a strange relief to Snowheart. Don't go soft... warned Mapleshade's voice in her head, but Snowheart had already decided.
Her life would be different.
She would throw away Mapleshade and her treachery and lies. She would be a Clan cat. She would follow the warrior code.
But her heart would never be as pure as snow.